Esports and the "mainstream" media have a strange relationship.
Not too long ago, they barely acknowledged each other's existence but now, as the popularity and prominence of competitive gaming has soared, an increasing number of established news outlets have seen fit to make an advance.
There is, of course, a healthy ecosystem of media outlets covering esports superbly but, over the past couple of years, more traditional publications have attempted to get in on the act.
Some have done a superb job. Take MailOnline, for example, which has a dedicated esports channel and reporting team. Likewise, ESPN. Other outlets, meanwhile, are doing less well - particularly in the eyes of esports fans.
Many members of the esports fraternity are understandably frustrated and even angered by ill-informed articles and scaremongering headlines.
It could be argued that many offending pieces are written to appeal to an audience with little or no esports knowledge and, in this day and age, volume of clicks is the name of the game. Yet, reporting of this nature does little to help the reputation of esports - and is in fact damaging - in the eyes of the wider public.
How has mainstream media coverage of esports evolved?
PC: Overall, I don’t think it has (improved). There have been numerous attempts at covering esports by major publications such as the BBC and The Guardian, but each time over the last 12 months they end up feeling condescending. I’m not sure if it’s on purpose and they are just using esports as clickbait or whether it’s genuine lack of education.
If they can’t even get their own history right, there isn’t much hope for them
Either way, it’s been poor in the main. There are, however, the odd bright spots here and there. So, while generally I would say it’s been poor, sometimes I am surprised by some really great pieces, too. It would be wrong to just chastise all attempts at covering our industry.
JS: It’s a huge, growing industry with a totally new audience. The Mail doesn’t have a general gaming section, so it was a market we were missing for a while.
There was a commercial partnership with Game Digital, which was a big factor in helping the section come about.
It’s a big, untapped market. The online crowd obviously love video games and the Mail dominates the online scene, so it’s a perfect match.
MS: There’s definitely more interest than four or five years ago because back then there was nothing.
If you look at a lot of the places I’ve written, it’s places that cover video games. The Telegraph and Forbes have video games sections and, because my contacts in the video games industry are quite deep, that’s how I got into it.
The problems arise when it’s, maybe, the sports desk or business desk that handle it
I go, "Hey, you’re covering video games, why aren’t you covering this?". I think that’s the situation that works quite well because I’m working with people who understand games and understand generally what esports is.
The problems arise when it’s, maybe, the sports desk or business desk that handle it and a lot of the times it’s publications that don’t have that video games coverage.
Writing for a mainstream publication isn’t that different to writing for the likes of Eurogamer – that’s a specialist games site but doesn’t cover esports. It’s kind of the same audience, they don’t really know what esports is but they cover games, so they know the basics.
The BBC is the big exception. They don’t do that much in the games side of things but they were totally open to esports.
How is it changing and what would you like to see?
PC: The main thing would be research. Several times last year I found myself correcting mainstream pieces where they claimed something was a “first” when it wasn’t. In particular, the BBC claiming they were covering esports on TV for the first time ever when actually others have already done it and, hilariously, the BBC had already covered it with the League of Legends shows on BBC Three from Wembley the previous year.
If they can’t even get their own history right, there isn’t much hope for them. Likewise, BT Sport made a big fuss about Gfinity being the “first time we’ve shown esports on the network” when they had showed esports the year before.
Most written pieces are poorly researched, often using outdated stereotypes of gamers and, indeed, using “gaming” in place of esports, as if the writer hasn’t understood the vast difference between the gaming world in general and the highly nuanced world of esports.
Talking to real esports people for advice would help which is what The Daily Mail has done. They also employed real esports people, people who understand the esports world, who to go to for comment on various games or subjects and are one of the few publications from the mainstream (along with ESPN) who treat esports seriously and deliver an authentic experience time after time.
I’m not the biggest fan of the Daily Mail as a publication, but I have a huge respect for its team that write on esports.
How important is authenticity?
MS: The advantage of bringing someone in who does esports as a job is that they live it every day and the publication won’t make a fool of itself.
But as a writer, I have to think about what terminology or jokes I can use because the reader might not get it. When you write for a mainstream publication, you can’t include super-niche jokes.
It is very different writing for a publication like that to a hardcore esports publication when you know the readers are going to understand every reference.
Are more mainstream outlets taking an interest now?
JS: I think "dipping their toes into the water" is the perfect way to describe it. I’ve seen more online papers in their gaming sections starting to do more League events and things like that.
I’m pretty sure most newspaper websites have taken more of a look into the esports scene. In general, it’s getting more coverage and it won’t be long until everyone has some kind of esports section.
Would better coverage in mainstream media help esports, or doesn't it matter?
PC: I’d love to say it doesn’t matter, but better and wider coverage by mainstream outlets leads to wider exposure to esports, which in the end does help bring more viewers, more sponsors and more money to the industry. All of those things are important for growth, but I do think some of the mainstream press are actually very scared by esports and even more scared by the lack of young readers they have.
They know, if they don’t cover esports, access to those young people is severely limited and without being able to connect with that generation they are alienating a large core of their next generation readers, something they can’t afford to do.
Some of the mainstream press are actually very scared by esports and even more scared by the lack of young readers they have
Hopefully as esports matures, so too the mainstream coverage will and we’ll get more authentic coverage in the future rather than the borderline slanderous clickbait the majority are putting out right now.
MS: I would love to see more esports publications work with traditional publications. The Mail is probably the only one that’s doing it well. There’s a lot of traditional publications out there going, "Hey, we want to cover esports – how do we do it?".
Articles that we’ve seen along the lines of, ‘Oh my god, this is addiction, a load of nerds playing in a basement’ - that’s not going to help
The way to do it is to partner with endemics. For example, SportsBusiness Journal and The Esports Observer recently partnered and they help each other with content. Deals like that is what we need more of because putting it on a mainstream outlet is definitely going to help esports, it’s going to bring more people in but it’s got to be done in the right way.
Articles that we’ve seen along the lines of, ‘Oh my god, this is addiction, a load of nerds playing in a basement’ - that’s not going to help but that’s what you’re going to get if mainstream publications keep doing what they’re doing.
If you get a mainstream publication partnering with an endemic then that’s a win-win for all parties.
Does esports need mainstream? We’ve said for years that it doesn’t but I think now with mainstream broadcasters and sponsors coming in that I think it shows that actually we do because it’s elevating us to a new level.
The conversation around Overwatch League is an example. A lot of fans are asking ‘why is Blizzard censoring us?’ – it’s because Overwatch League is a big deal. We have mainstream sponsors coming in and, with that, certain issues need to be tackled.
JS: For the longest time in esports, everyone has been wanting it to be legitimised and recognised and seeing national newspapers and big-names like Mail Online get involved, that’s huge not only for investors but also for fans.
They see esports being taken seriously. It might be a different audience – a lot of the people mainstream outlets reach might not be die-hard esports fans but it exposes esports to a general audience.
If nothing else, this helps increase understanding and awareness of what esports entails and, hopefully, gives them a new respect for it.
Photo by Elijah O'Donell on Unsplash